Would you sacrifice your car for a sexual encounter? Some men in Oregon now have to ask themselves that question. And their dilemma may soon be faced by those in other states.
In an effort to stamp out prostitution, police officers in Portland have been taking the cars of men suspected of solicitation. The seizures are sanctioned by laws, passed to combat drug dealers, that allow authorities to take property used in committing a crime.
Since October 1988, Portland and Wayne County police officers have seized almost 1,000 cars. These numbers have impressed other cities, who see it as an effective way to help eliminate prostitution. Detroit has recently begun its own seizure program. And police in other cities have contacted Portland authorities for advice.
Undercover officers lure would-be customers into offering them money for sex. Once the deal is made, officers rush in to seize the suspect's car and tow it away. "The seizure is made on the spot," says Stevie Remington, executive director of the Oregon ACLU, which is challenging the practice. "They don't have to have probable cause. They don't have to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. They don't even have to charge anyone with a crime."
Because the seizures are made under civil law instead of a criminal statute, prosecutors only have to show "a preponderance of the evidence" to justify taking a car.
"What's more," says Remington, "the seizures often amount to a stiffer punishment than what the suspect would get if he were convicted. The maximum fine for solicitation is $2,500, but the police can seize cars worth thousands of dollars more."
In fact, the Los Angeles Times reports that the most expensive vehicle seized in Portland was a $100,000 tractor-trailer loaded with candy bars.